“Cleta Mitchell has emerged in a series of roles that many see as a Republican push on limiting voting rights
Last modified on Sun 25 Apr 2021 04.03 EDT
It was an abrupt end to two decades as a partner at legal giant Foley & Lardner for the influential and conservative election lawyer Cleta Mitchell.
Days after Mitchell participated in Donald Trump’s controversial 2 January phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state where the then president pressured him to “find” him more votes to reverse Joe Biden’s win, Mitchell resigned her post in the midst of an internal firm review and mounting criticism.
But Mitchell, a combative and top lawyer in the right’s drive to promote unproven charges of sizable voting fraud in 2020 and tighten future voting laws, was not idle for long. She has now emerged in a series of roles that have put her at the heart of what many see as a ferocious Republican push on limiting voting rights that now reaches across America.
Last month, Mitchell was tapped by the libertarian FreedomWorks to spearhead a $10m drive in seven key states including Georgia, Arizona and Michigan to change voting laws to curb potential but unproven election fraud, which many Democrats and legal experts view as aimed at limiting minority votes.
According to a FreedomWorks spokesman, another key part of Mitchell’s mission leading its “National Election Protection Initiative”, is to rally opposition to a House-passed bill that in part would expand voting rights nationally which its sponsors see as necessary to counter the conservative assaults on voting rights in many states.
Georgia last month enacted a law that makes voting tougher with new curbs on absentee ballots and on voters in heavily Democratic urban and suburban areas, sparking lawsuits from civil rights and liberal groups, plus a sharp attack from Biden.
FreedomWorks’ president, Adam Brandon, has hailed Mitchell as “an outspoken advocate and voice of reason for improved election laws, especially during the chaotic 2020 election cycle”, and dubbed her “our guide”, chairing its election initiative, which will also include training and deploying activists in the states to monitor election procedures.
Likewise, the Trump-allied Conservative Partnership Institute last month recruited Mitchell as a “senior fellow” with a similar mission. Mitchell told the AP she is working to “coordinate” conservative views on voting to bolster opposition to the House passed voting rights legislation that is pending in the Senate.
Mitchell’s FreedomWorks and CPI projects come even as a Georgia DA in Fulton county is looking into whether Trump and others broke laws in pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to find enough votes to block Biden’s win. On that call, Mitchell claimed she had evidence of voting fraud, but officials with Raffensperger’s office disagreed and faulted her data.
Some voting rights lawyers say Mitchell could face scrutiny over her role in the call.
Gerry Hebert, who spent over two decades as a senior attorney at the Justice Department’s voting rights section, said in an interview Trump’s actions and words constituted “election interference [and] violated both state law and federal law, and he should be held accountable”.
Mitchell “reportedly interjected multiple times during the call in which she tried to support Trump’s allegations of fraud”, he said. “Her role in that call may well be part of the investigation” by the Georgia DA. Hebert added the state bar to which Mitchell belongs “has a responsibility to determine if she committed any violation of the legal ethics rules in that state.
Reached by phone, Mitchell declined to comment on her work for the two conservative outfits, or the Georgia inquiry into Trump’s call and whether she might face scrutiny.
Historically, the 70-year-old Mitchell has done legal work for many key players on the right including the National Rifle Association where she previously was on the board. A former Democrat and member of the Oklahoma legislature, Mitchell in the 1990s switched parties and moved to DC, where she has given legal counsel to many GOP candidates, campaign committees and non-profits.
Mitchell’s new roles with FreedomWorks and CPI underscore the right’s goal of swaying future election results with more voting curbs. The conservative blitz to tighten voting laws in which Heritage Action for America is a key player too, is being fueled by tens of millions of dollars, coupled with allegations that Trump as well as Mitchell and conservative allies have spread about unproven widespread voter fraud in the last elections.
In post-election radio interviews, Mitchell has escalated her rhetoric charging that Raffensperger is a “pathological liar” and attacking some GOP leaders in Georgia as “morally bankrupt”, according to the watchdog group Documented.
In another radio segment, Mitchell said that last September she told Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, there was a “massive effort to steal the election”.
More recently, Mitchell told the AP that she and Trump have been in contact “fairly frequently”, but declined to provide details.
Meanwhile, other right leaning groups with which Mitchell has had good ties are engaged in campaigns that seem to overlap those of FreedomWorks and CPI to limit voting rights.
For example, Mitchell told the AP: “I’ve been working with state legislatures for several years to get them to pay attention to what I call the political process.”
To be sure, Mitchell prior to the election served as outside counsel and helped coordinate a major voting law initiative for the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), an influential group of conservative state legislators which promotes model bills for states. Alec has reportedly been increasingly active this year in pushing its ideas for changing voting laws.
Known as well connected in conservative big money circles, Mitchell also serves on the board of the deep pocketed Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, a top donor to many rightwing groups including Alec to which it gave $750,000 dollars in 2020, records show.
Further, Mitchell has attended meetings of the famously secretive Council for National Policy, an influential rightwing group that boasts top donors, evangelical leaders and prominent conservatives like FreedomWorks’ Brandon.
At a CNP national meeting in mid November one panel featured Mitchell, Christian Adams the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Pilf), and other lawyers discussing “Election results and legal battles: What now?”
Mitchell, who also chairs Pilf, which received $300,000 in 2020 from the Bradley foundation, has indicated it could get active in the legal battles over the new Georgia law.
To be sure, some conservatives voice doubts about Mitchell’s legal acumen. An ex senior NRA official who knows Mitchell quipped her views are on the “fringe of the fringe”.
And one prominent GOP voting rights lawyer said Mitchell “tells clients what they want to hear regardless of law or reality”. The lawyer predicted Mitchell “will get scrutiny, but probably won’t be charged” in the Georgia DA’s inquiry.”